Live Nude Books Interview with Kyle Minor

Posted: June 18, 2009 in Interviews

Live Nude Books: I’m wondering if you could talk a little about your writing process.  In the Devil’s Territory is made up of short and long stories—two approach/reach novella length.  Is form something you think about before writing a story?  Do form and the page-length of a story develop naturally through the drafting and revision processes for you?

Kyle Minor: It’s a little different for every story. Sometimes I find that once I find something that works, I exhaust the thing about it that works after one story. The only way I know to talk about it would be to talk about the stories in the book. “The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party” was originally an essay I wrote while my wife was in the hospital and there was a chance the baby she carried wouldn’t make it. I wrote it on Christmas Eve in the two spare hours I had away from the house, at the Caribou Coffee in Upper Arlington, Ohio. The Southern Review published it, and then, since it looked more like a “conventional” short story (by which I mean a single-movement story from one point of view that has a lyrical ending that is somehow epiphanic) than any of the actual short stories I had written, and since it fit the book, thematically, I changed the names of the characters and called it fiction.

“A Day Meant to Do Less” began as a meditation on some green wallpaper. Also, one of my old teachers professed a dislike for stories in which characters are sitting and thinking, while another wrote entire books where characters are sitting and thinking. So I put a senile old woman in a bathtub and had her son stand and think about undressing and bathing her. I wanted to please the teacher who wrote the books where the characters sit and think, but she hated the story. The professor who didn’t like characters who sit and think liked it a lot, and told me to send it to the Gettysburg Review, and they published it, and then it was reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2008. I think all that was despite the sitting and the thinking. I think it was because of the two-part structure, in which you get the bathtub scene first from the son’s point of view, and then from the old lady’s point of view, after you realize that she has withheld from her son the great terror of her life, and that, in her impairment, she thinks he is that great terror, that the last movement of her life has revealed to her that “the very face of evil was love.” That structure and that turn of events surprised me when I was writing the first draft. I was sitting in the Donatos Pizza in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and I had to close up shop and leave because it left me unsettled. I didn’t yet know that this is what must happen if the story’s going to be any good. It has to unsettle the writer.

“A Love Story” was an attempt to write a more or less chronologically linear long story from the point of view of a misunderstood person, and with the kind of great empathy Andre Dubus invested in his characters.

“goodbye Hills, hello night,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of someone I knew in childhood who participated in a murder. To get the voice right I pulled depositions at the Palm Beach County Courthouse. The first version was a third again as long, and I cut it down to size, but with great anguish.

“The Navy Man” was an inversion of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog.” I did it through the woman’s point of view, and I made her a woman from the subculture about which I was writing, and married her to a recurring minor character in the other stories, and substituted Islamorada for Yalta, and Washington, D.C., for Moscow. I wrote it because I needed another story, and also because I had edited a book of Chekhov stories meant to show that he could do more than boring old “The Lady with the Lapdog,” but then I reread “The Lady with the Lapdog” after the Chekhov book was published, and turns out it’s a pretty good story.

“In the Devil’s Territory” was the most difficult story to write. It went through twenty-some drafts. The first one was a poem. One was in the point of view of an angel. Most of them were a mess. I wrote an essay about writing it, which you can find in the latest issue of Ball State University’s fabulous journal The Broken Plate, which is edited by Mark Neely.

LNB: The story, “A Day Meant to Do Less,” starts out in Jack’s point-of-view, then switches to Franny’s and stays with her.  Was this structure what you had envisioned from the time you began writing the story?  Do you think about structure when composing?

KM: I do think about structure when composing, but often the story gets its head and wants to be something different for some thematic or characterological reason, and then I have to do something different structurally. That’s what happened with “A Day Meant to Do Less,” which was written, anyway, in a kind of fever dream. Franny’s point of view, by the way, was inspired by a novella partially written through an actual fever dream — “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is Katherine Anne Porter’s Spanish influenza story. (Porter didn’t like that word, novella, but I like it plenty.)

LNB: The stories in this collection are wide-ranging, in terms of craft—you vary points-of-view, voice, structure, form, etc.  Yet they gel to form a solid collection through theme and subject matter.  Did you write these stories specifically for the collection, or did you compile existing stories that you found to be thematically linked?

KM: I wrote “A Love Story,” “The Navy Man,” and “In the Devil’s Territory” specifically for the collection, to round out what the other three stories had set into motion. I meant to make a picture of the world I came from, and what it felt like, and what it feels like, and its humanness, and its consequences.

LNB: What was your strategy for ordering the stories in this collection?

KM: Raymond Carver said begin and end with a pisser. I guess most of these are pissers. “A Day Meant to Do Less” is the biggest pisser, but it starts slowly, so I didn’t want to put it first. I put “In the Devil’s Territory” last because it ends with a metaphor that stands in not just for itself, but also for the whole book. I thought that brought a sense of unity to the whole. I wanted that unity, even though it was a book of stories.

I also tried to pace the book, and not put stories together that were too alike, but the anonymous reviewer at one of the trade magazines complained that the second and third stories were too alike, although, really, they’re not very alike.

LNB: In addition to writing fiction, you’ve published essays and edited the book, The Other Chekhov.  What are you working on next?

KM: I’ve been writing genre stories for Plots with Guns, which has been liberating and fun, not least because I get to work with Anthony Neil Smith, who is a true American hero. I’m almost done with a nonfiction book set in Haiti. I’ve been back and forth between there and the States for the last year and a half, researching it. I’ll probably follow that up with a novel, which I’m still drafting.

LNB: What are you currently reading?

KM: Here are some books that knocked the top of my head off the last couple months:

Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat
Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder
The Rainy Season, by Amy Wilentz
The Rabbit Tetralogy, by John Updike
In the Beauty of the Lilies, by John Updike
The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner
The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
The Stories of John Cheever
Questions for Ecclesiastes, by Mark Jarman
An Invitation to Poetry, by Jay Parini
Ordinary Genius, by Kim Addonizio
Avengers of the New World, by Laurent Dubois
The Discipline, by David Citino
End of I., by Stephen Dixon
Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes, by Diederich & Burt
The Stories of J. F. Powers
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford
St. John of the Five Boroughs, by Edward Falco

I’m looking forward to reading the new Philip Roth, whatever book the New Yorker story “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat will appear in, that new Gabriel Garcia-Marquez biography, and whatever Donald Ray Pollock and Cormac McCarthy write next.

Also, I should plug the website HTMLGiant.com, where a very, very interesting and irreverent conversation about literature has been going on since last winter, among, as far as I can tell, a talented and very smart pool of young writers, among them James Yeh, Blake Butler, and Barry Graham. I read with James and Blake on my book tour this spring, and I lunched with Barry last fall in Ypsilanti, Michigan. That crew is a shot in the arm, and literature needs it, badly. I like a lot of the books coming out from Melville House, Dzanc, New York Review Books, and the Dalkey Archive Press. Also, I should plug some literary journals I like: Ninth Letter, Hobart, Sou’wester, Third Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Georgia Review. These are all a big part of my life.

I think reading is way more important than writing. I wish I could read more.

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Comments
  1. yoder says:

    This was fucking great!

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